Monday, 30 July 2012

The Home Straight

I'm writing the last few scenes in A Baby's Bones, not the final scenes in the book but the ones leading up to finale, which I've already written. Which is a badly worded way of saying (and showing) that I am worded out. Pooped. I'm planning to finish the contemporary strand tomorrow, then start on the historical strand. I would have blogged about it...but I was too busy. It's really satisfying to have more of an understanding of my own process, as I write. Last time I was unsure of how to progress from a flawed, inadequate first draft to a better, more coherent and paced second draft. I was never sure I was improving the draft, just changed it, sometimes in the wrong direction. I do seem to have a sense of where this book is going, this time. 

Like a lot of writers, I'm intimidated by the scale of writing a whole book. It's too easy to get hung up on the writing and editing as you go along, polishing the first few chapters over and over rather than proceeding with the whole story. I think I'm learning about that, as well as gaining confidence in the scale of any novel. I know I write a thousand words a day, pretty well every day. If those words are following a story, then a good first draft should take - say three months. Second draft - because I have to substantially rewrite my first drafts - maybe one to two months, subsequent drafts, a few weeks down to days. Basically, it takes a while to hold the whole thing in my head, but I get there. 

The difference between my first draft and my second is largely character and tone. First draft, I was evolving my character as I went along, finding out about her. The other main character was light relief, and needed completely changing. He's much darker and sadder now, and my main character, Sage, has a lot more to lose. Each rewrite will intensify the darkness now, adding little descriptions (which I still leave out in early drafts) as well as making sure the twists and turns of the mystery are revealed in a sequence that makes sense. (You can't blame the cat before you notice the cream is missing). It's a nice place to be, rather than in the mid-book blues, when I wonder where all this is going and I still have forty thousand words to write.

Now I am looking forward to the historical strand that chases the same mystery but from the perspective of the players - the two bodies excavated from the well, the grave in the woods. It's cold and grey here, the temperature seems to have dropped ten degrees from the gorgeous sunshine a few days ago. Suits the creepy drama I'm writing. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Feedback for the novel

It was with some trepidation that I waited for feedback on my novel (originally called Borrowed Time) from the other runner up from the Mslexia competition, Nicola Vincent-Abnett. Trepidation because I'd been so bowled over by her literary novel, and wondered if my commercial novel might not stand up to Naming Names. I needn't have worried, Nicola (who has a great deal of experience in the publishing world) critiqued it as a commercial book, and was kind enough to give a great review. Wow. She was also kind enough to send me a book of her husband's, derived from the same time period. Looking forward to reading Triuff: Her Majesty's Hero

I'm on a roll here with A Baby's Bones, too, tapping out the last few chapters with enthusiasm. Even though I didn't expect the vicar to get stabbed. Oops. Sorry. Sometimes, these things just happen. I'm going to print off a draft to play with so I can insert the historical bits and hack away at the language. My first drafts are done without my editor's hat on, and are composed mostly of clichés, mispellings and adverbs. My editor takes a purple pen and tuts all the way through. I'm finding having deadlines very helpful. I have to set myself strict dates in order to get anything done, and the end of August is it for A Baby's Bones, then it's off for substantial editing and tidying. 

We have family and friends visiting in August, so that makes me strict on deadlines, too. So, hopefully, by the end of August I should know whether anyone wants to buy the book, and be ready to launch into the sequel. The research is great fun: European history from the 1580s is so rich in ideas and adventures, and great characters like Tycho Brahe (that's pronounced bra-ha, I looked it up). And the Venice of the sixteenth century is so rich, no wonder they set Assassin's Creed there (for the uninitiated, this is a franchise of computer games). A world of masks and lies and spies...perfect for Elizabeth Bathory with her nasty secrets and thirst for young blood. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Discipline of writing

I used to have a thousand a day habit (words written not cigarettes) - I sat down at some point and slogged out a thousand words. This was when writing was my hobby, and often it was the last thing I did in the evening. Now I'm writing full time, it's hard to understand why I can't do more than a thousand, some days. I think I've worked it out. I would think all day about what I wanted to write, turn over possibilities in my head while I was busy or working, until I could let it all loose on the keyboard at the end of the day. Now I sit do what? I haven't spent time working on it, thinking about it. It takes me a while to find the threads again, to pick up the story. One advantage of this is I do read the last few days work through, but that's largely with my editor's hat on and I don't change hats quickly.

I still get the blitz days when I write loads because a new scene has consumed me, usually something towards the end that I've been working on for ages in the back of my mind. I'm trying to find a method to set one of those off, so I can polish off the last few chapters. If I find a way, I'll share it, but in the meantime I'm plodding through my thousand or two in the breathless heat of North Devon. There's hardly a breeze even on the beach, it's baking hot.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Second draft

Since I have the least efficient method of writing a novel ever, I am working at pushing the second draft into being the final structural draft. I don't want to have to add scenes, refine characters or change the order of things after this draft. It's coming on well, but I realised the scenes that I imagined in the middle of the book are actually towards the end, and some explaining needs to be done. One of my characters falls down a well, for example, and I seemed to have skipped over this rather lightly over the last few chapters. I'm hoping it's together enough to give to my lovely agent, for comments and ideas, before I start really refining the language and managing the pacing and the (absent) descriptions. I don't know why I don't write enough, because I'm quite good at them. 

The ending I'm so nervous about writing is now better signposted, has a scary chapter already written an an outline to finish the novel. My 'only seven scenes to write' was a bit optimistic, but I've managed four new scenes with more foreshadowing of the horrors to come. What's more scary than a nine year old girl? OK, wolves, sharks, banshees maybe...but my nine year old isn't supposed to be scary so the contrast (hopefully) is suitably threatening. The prose is flowing easily, and that's the good thing.

Meanwhile, the sun shines, the birds keep coming in the conservatory and I have to chase or carry them out (all the windows and doors are open, for goodness sake!). The beach is beckoning, especially as the Hockings' ice cream van in there...time for lunch.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Writing the scary endings

I've enjoyed writing A Baby's Bones, and now I'm only a few scenes from the end I realise I'm fearful of writing them. Not scared of whether they'll be any good or not (I only know that when I read them back in a few weeks time) but because I know the scenes are very tense and threatening. I creep myself out sometimes, and then I have nightmares. It's obviously all in my head all the time, so I don't know how it works that writing it gives me such a reaction. Do other people scare themselves writing thrillers and horror?

My main character Sage has a lot at stake, so I'm protective of her. But unless she's in real danger, as much as the woman in the past, it won't explain the horrible events of the past. It's strange, they are all fictional but somehow they seem - well, real. When you fall in love with a character in a book, it's real enough to get emotional about them. I've lost count of the number of times I've muttered to the words on a  page: 'Oh, get on with it!' or 'Don't go there!'. Even as a child, reading CS Lewis, I would always hope Edmund wouldn't go with the witch, even though it was important to the plot that he did so, or that they wouldn't torment Aslan, even though that breaks the spell...

So, I'm chasing the chickens around the garden and faffing about with chores just because I finally have a list of final scenes and I'm nervous of starting them. I know what will happen. I won't be able to stop writing, my back and neck will stiffen up but I won't notice, cups of tea will line up on the desk, brought in by my son although I won't see him come and go. And thousands of irresistible words will scramble untidily on the page, because I won't have time to correct typos or worry about proper punctuation and my internal editor will sit gibbering. Maybe I should just get on with it.  

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Writing in sunshine

The weather shouldn't make that much difference to a writer, should it? I mean, we tap away indoors most of the time anyway. But somehow, writing in a sunny room makes me write more positive prose, and quicker. I write in a room that faces due South, which all the main rooms do, but this year the glooms of winter seemed to have spilled over onto the summer. It's just light levels. Some of us need a boost in the summer to get us through the winter, and this year hasn't just been rainy, it's been cold and dark. I look at my writing, even my blog, and it's got a layer of grump over it in places that don't normally inflict me in the summer. Hopefully we'll get a good shot of the yellow stuff to get us through the next winter.

I spent yesterday writing, walking in said yellow stuff and reading an unpublished book by one of my Full Nine Yarns colleagues, Nicola Vincent-Abnett. The book was simply stunning. She has taken a truly difficult subject and made it so readable that after the first third I didn't put it down. Missed my dinner, it was that good. The main character is so real, so believable, I was rooting for her after the first 50 pages. Unlike lots of books with a character of a therapist, hers is believable, and took roughly the approach I might have. It makes me wonder what the other books in the shortlist are like. Why isn't this writer published? It doesn't make of the best books I've read all year. 

Apart from that, not much to report except A Baby's Bones is looking like a proper book, with just a few scenes to fill in before I hit the historical strand, which is easy because Vincent (the narrator) has been yammering at me through the contemporary strand. With washing in the fresh air, the chickens working harder and harder to break out of the yard and some of the kids off on an outing, it should be a good day for writing. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Good news and bad news

The bad news is the deadline for my novel has been moved to the 16th of August. The good news is it's because the important people who need to discuss my book in meetings have been on holiday. At least four editors have asked for more time to allow other people to be consulted. Sounds good to me!

The other good news is that my next book, now nearing completion, has just been shortlisted for the Yeovil literary prize. I just hope Sophie Hannah, the judge, likes it. And it's sunny, and I've decided not to move house because I already live in a beautiful place and none of my cats are in real danger here. Who doesn't want to live up a hill by the sea?

The networking event in London was awesome, read Nicola Vincent-Abnett's blog post about it here. I sat there, realising the nine of us sat around a few tables, were really strong writers. We have been selected out of a huge pool of good writers, and can do anything we want. An editor said to me that she was in awe of us, we seemed like such a strong team (although we had only met an hour or two before) and we could do the magic trick that is to take a blank page or screen and create characters so real she loves or hates them. She said if she could do that she would be a writer, not an editor. Wonderful validation for all of us!

It was lovely to see the New Writing North writers circulating and chatting and hopefully picking up agents. The event was so full of energy and laughter and real enthusiasm. In my mind, editors were stern, cruel people but it turned out they were friendly, chatty and passionate about books - like us. 

It was a great evening, and I'm so glad I went. I hope the nine of us will meet up again, and share adventures and triumphs. That Mslexia prize just keeps giving... although some of us were sad we didn't get a commemorative certificate or pen or something we could show off. But I did print off the email... Meanwhile, I can look back on an evening where I sat in a room with agents and editors wearing a label that said: Rebecca Alexander. Writer. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

No news is good news - right?

I spoke to my agent, which was helpful. She thinks half the publishing industry may be scrabbling for 'erotica' to put out as e-books, so some editors still haven't read my book. She promises to have some news on Friday. It's still out with several, I think seven.

I know this is publishing, an industry about which I know very little, but it does feel strange to literally not understand what's going on. I mean, I know about editors and acquisitions and so on, but agents, editors and publishers move in a close-knit community where most deals seem to be done at lunches and informal meetings. If I wanted to do something academic, like some psychology research, I would know where to go for funding, supervision, ethics approval, statistics and software support et cetera. There would be a million forms, and there would be a lot of delays, but it wouldn't depend on personalities or friendships, it would depend upon my presentation, my professionalism. I haven't got a problem with the publishing world, it's just I don't understand it. My book is out there, represented entirely by an agent, and I have no idea what people are doing with it. That brings a certain freedom, too, as I can't imagine how I would break into that specialised circle. So I'm here, waving a flag for Charlotte's efforts on my behalf. She's confident we can sell it. Wow.  

So I'm focusing on going to London tomorrow and meeting the rest of the shortlisted Mslexia writers. I've been given a name to say 'Hi' to, and am really looking forward to meeting the people that I've been blogging and emailing with. I'm also looking forward to hearing about their books! It will be nice to see the New Writing North award winners again, as well.

So I'm going to try and forget the book for a few hours and enjoy the evening. After that, we're staying the night in Andover (on the A303) and I shall wake up on my birthday. Hopefully, we can do something nice on the way home, like stop somewhere for lunch or visit a national trust place. Depending on my back, anyway. And then a busy day Friday, as an estate agent is coming around to value our house, in case we want to move.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Nothing to report (again)

The book went off to publishers on the 14th June - that's 31 days ago, a whole month. No more news. I shall bother Charlotte tomorrow for an update. I know I should just get on with Baby's Bones but it's hard to focus. Instead, we spent the nine hours of sunshine we have had today - before the rain returned - blitzing the garden and wondering whether we could move again. [Tiny update - Monday - agent phoning round to find out what's going on and reporting back Tuesday!]

I have been reading, though, so the time isn't completely wasted. I can recommend all these:

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (another book about a baby's bones, so I couldn't resist, with a fascinating historical thread of hidden letters.

Nora Roberts The Witness, a bit commercial for my taste and a predictable romance but an interesting lead character and a twist. Came to an abrupt end. I probably wouldn't have bought it if I hadn't been on holiday but OK.

The Mercurial Emperor by Peter Marshall - fantastic research and entertaining read.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollingshurst - well written, interesting but I haven't warmed to the characters yet (by page 195) so I haven't finished.

Katherine the Queen - biography of Katherine Parr which is readable and well researched. And I got it secondhand which helped!

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd, delicious detail and beautifully written.

But the best thing I saw all week was the BBC series 'Venice' by Francesco da Mosto. Delicious.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

400 blog posts on the journey to publication

It seemed a bit pretentious and over confident to put 'the journey to publication' on my first blog. Yet, here I am, further down that path. No guarantees - I met a writer the other day who almost sold their book, only to get turned down at the last second, heartbreaking (and, I imagine, very frustrating). 

It's been an interesting journey, not least because I thought at first it would just be a private ramble, like a diary, as I wrestled with writing exercises, assignments, rejections and ideas. For three months it just seemed like me, climbing the hill, enjoying the view. Then I put a controversial post up and someone commented. People were reading my blog! I found the stats button and found that people on A215 had found it but also other writers. Gradually, I got more comments and emails, and people started 'friending' me on Facebook. I was part of a writing community. I linked to other blogs I liked, and started following other people's journeys. I was encouraged by their successes, sympathetic to their stumbles. I started to have faith in the process. Yes, it was almost impossibly difficult to get published, yet people were doing it. I started to read my own stuff and realise it was getting better, and short stories were finding their way into anthologies and magazines. 

Without that writing community, I would never have sent my half-baked novel out to Mslexia. I was encouraged by the diversity of the work others had sent out - many of which were longlisted in the end. So, I sent out my novel, which led to being shortlisted and getting an agent, who has sent it (heavily edited!) out to editors. I'm right at the fork in the road that is signposted 'get a publishing deal', by the sign, looking ahead, that says 'keep trying'. Although a book deal would be fireworks and champagne, they do look very similar. Keep writing, keep improving, keep working. Which I will do anyway, because the stories would drive me mad if I didn't pin them on the page. 

So, if you're travelling with me because you are a writer, keep writing, stay open to improvement, enjoy the journey to bigger and better things. 
My sort of path

Monday, 9 July 2012

And an update: editors

So far, the book has gone out to 16 editors, and we've had some passes, and two requests to see it. So I think there are still eleven editors mulling it over. That's amazing: eighteen more people I don't know have read my book! That I just made up to entertain number one son. I'm astonished. I have no idea if this is good news or bad news, but I really feel like my writing 'career' has moved on amazingly thanks to Mslexia. 

At the pitching workshop, several writers have written children's books but were wary of entering the Mslexia Children's Novel Competition. Hopefully, we have convinced them to think again ... some of the shortlist were not literary fiction at all but story focused and maybe even commercial in nature.

Which brings me to the reason one editor turned down the book - she thought it was a bit too commercial. Music to my ears, just the sort of book I enjoy. Watch this space...  
King Istvan Bathory - one of my villains!

1585 from Riga! My lucky coin...

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Pitching in Newcastle

Mslexia have teamed up with New Writing North to run a networking event for the winners of NWN awards and shortlisted writers from the Mslexia Novel writing competition. To prepare us for pitching, they offered an all day workshop on presenting our work. And it was brilliant! It was quite terrifying, as Ian Fenton got us 'speed dating' - pitching our vast, complex, beautiful novels in two minutes, without notes. Needless to say, most of us were not very good at it at first, and in two minutes of listening's time, we were going to have to do it again. And again. After lunch, we looked at the mistakes were making. Not mentioning the name of our novel, nor the genre. One lady got through a fascinating pitch and I was convinced it was a great kid's book - only to find it was an adult book. I repeatedly got lost in the historical details and failed to mention my main character's name. A confidence boosting hour taken by Stephanie Butland not only broke the ice but helped us present our pitches more confidently.

There were four of us there from Mslexia, and I was completely wowed by Victoria Gosling's book Letters to G, and by her confident pitch (she works in publishing). I was also intrigued by Emma Purshouse's book, Scratters, which sounds full of that dark humour that tells big stories with a sly sideways look at the reader as well as the characters. Catherine Simpson's Chicken Dust wove a mysterious story through a family within a place full of secrets. The New Writing North's writers brought a collection of intriguing short stories, a number of children's novels and some adult novels in development, and one 'literary non-fiction' writer. I really do wish them all well, and I think the networking event will be the place to find agents and editors to push their work forward.

Having embarrassed ourselves stammering through the first few pitches, it was time to do it again, two minutes, no conferring. By the end I was hoarse, and when Liv and Claire came back at the end we had to pitch - again - this time in front of the whole group to have feedback from them both. It was exhausting, but although my pitch is still rubbish, it definitely improved. It has brought back to me what's wrong with the book - it's really complicated to explain so maybe it's just too complicated. 

Anyway, it was a great day, everyone was really nice and patient with each other, and I know having met loads of people who are going to be at the networking event will be a real asset. I'm actually looking forward to it, especially as Liv pointed at her jeans and jumper and said 'I would come like this - wear what makes you feel comfortable!' Music to my ears.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Now I'm Nervous

Crazy, I've been all over the NW on holiday and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, then we had to move over to the NE to go to this pitching workshop and I'm panicking. The reason probably is that someone is probably going to expect me to define what my book is about and I still can't. I walked around Waterstones, thinking 'where would it go?' but still no idea. Kelley Armstrong's books ended up in 'Horror' but I don't think I've written a horror story. Historical novels all seem to be romance, the only things similar seemed to be in 'teens' but my protagonist is definitely an adult. 

My agent came up with: 'Imagine the best of historical fiction meets crime fiction with added vampires...' although I promise the word vampire is never used and nobody sparkles. It's really about 'revenants, souls that are held back from heaven by sorcery', but her pitch never even mentioned my main characters and I have a feeling I'm going to have to add them somewhere. If we can't pitch it, we can't sell it.

I found this blog post very helpful, and I'm going to huddle over a piece of paper and work on my 'elevator pitch' this evening. Wish me luck! Oh, and still no news...

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A day on the water

I rarely pass up a chance to get on the water (or in it). We spent the day on Lake Windermere, on a  lovely old 1891 converted steamer called 'Tern'. It was nothing like a seagoing boat, long and lean and pretty. The lake started out misty and murky, but ended up sunny. It was a lovely day. It's so different from the sea, no real waves, no tides, no currents, and a beautiful reflective surface for everything around the lake. We also enjoyed going to the freshwater aquarium, Russell was fascinated by the four foot Caiman (alligator) pressed up against the glass. 

We came home to a terrific thunderstorm, which flooded the porch but not the cottage. We're a bit punch drunk with 'quiet time', we get so little time as a couple and now we have days - it's been lovely. It's hard to get together when there are six children and stepchildren, their needs and time came first for so many years we hardly know each other just as two adults. Hopefully we'll find more time as the kids get older. 

No word from the agent. Three weeks ago the MS went off to sixteen editors, and so far, I haven't heard anything. She warned me rejections usually come in quickly, and I'm not sure she would tell me about those. But I think I would rather know. I'll arrange to speak to her next week and see what's happening. Scary times. I know it's a hard sell, because it doesn't fit neatly into a genre. I'll get back to writing next week and can just enjoy the process again. I don't think I'm going to be very good at the selling bit!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Magical day

We spent the morning at Sizergh castle, which has wonderful panelled Tudor rooms and halls. Great, huge, impressive. This evening, we found a lovely pub with fantastic food, went for a walk through the fields back to the village, then up to the church for a concert by the Broughton Parish Church Choir. The church, from the 1500's, was packed, and the large choir absolutely filled the space with all sorts of church music from Handel, Bruckner (which was awesome), Rutter and Vaughan Williams. They even got the congregation joining in. About  50 men and boys, absolute magic. 

It did make me think about my two characters, Jack and Sadie, forced to move into a new community. Jack has few social skills, but Sadie is fifteen, and I think going to a church concert might be a way to meet the locals. Not to mention, all the 1500's architecture helps me set the action.

I know I can write good descriptions, but it's something I don't feel inspired to do (or even remember). I know where everything is set, and I'm not very good at putting it on the page. I've got plenty of material now, with the bonkers cottage, the concert and the castle. It's all helping me develop the story.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Cumbria and Inspiration

Not having internet access 24/7 is strangely liberating. Instead of me surfing the internet for answers to any questions that come up, I'm spending real thinking time plotting, planning and filling in gaps in my story. My husband, having read Secrets, has become interested in the next book, and is asking all those useful questions like 'how can they get from here to there?' and 'but how does that work?'. I'm really having fun planning without any pressure to actually write (which is sort of the easy bit anyway).

Cumbria is beautiful, but it isn't fertile soil, so it seems bleak and quiet compared to the birdsong and seagulls and magpies at home. Here it's just jackdaws and a handful of quiet sparrows. We have seen deer, but at home buzzards patrol overhead, swallows scream through the valley, rooks and jackdaws gather in thousands along the ridge before an evening jaunt down to the beach. Hundreds of seagulls commute past the house morning and evening. Here the village falls silent at dusk.

The village is great though, it's a miniature slice of Tudor history. Many of the cottages belong to this cottage complex, and many others belong to the National Trust. Odd alleys wind under upper floors of cottages only ten foot wide and wind between tiny houses. They are mostly painted white, and have thick old slates on exposed walls and roofs. A great place to set the next book. The house will certainly fit better into the landscape we have explored and photographed. 
Hawkshead from Latterbarrow
Somewhere to walk a wolf!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

How things change!

Two days after an Olympic whinge, normal service is resumed. My glass spine managed nine hours in the car, somehow, and I woke up in our Tudor cottage after a good nights sleep. The marathon drive (thanks to a heroic effort by the husband, who never once said 'Can't we just go to Cornwall?') gave us time to speculate about the historical strand of 'the sequel' to The Secrets of Life and Death, and all sorts of ideas and links have fallen out. I can't wait to write it! Even though I still haven't heard a word about the editors looking at my book, all sixteen of them, I have to write the rest of Kelley's story. I'm falling in love with sixteenth century Bohemia and Venice at the moment. 

Hawkshead is very old, the bit we are in is all 1500-1650, houses jumbled together like blocks, with alleys between them. Parking by the cottage for our 8 seater is impossible, but otherwise it seems great. The whole town is populated by jackdaws, four and six to a roof, all with flying babies so loads of calling and answering. Although we have no phone signal, the landlady next door has put us on her Wifi so I can keep an eye on emails etc. And blog, of course. I shall post photos when I get some, assuming it stops raining at some point. At least it isn't cold.    
We're staying here!